zootoopia and the culture war over diversity

Mulling over Disney’s magical Zootopia prompted me to check in with the American Conservative’s resident culture warrior, Rod Dreher and, sure enough, there was this gem with the pop-conservative click-bait title, “What If Diversity Is Our Weakness?” The article is essentially Dreher quoting a reader’s comment from a previous article, all the while channeling Nelson from The Simpsons as he points to the “left” and ha-has. The source of all this glee: a challenge to the cherished notion that encouraging interactive diversity will result in social harmony. But he cites no mere trolling from the unwashed commentariat. No; his citation is powered by a liberal political scientist from Harvard, Robert Putnam, whose research into diversity in 2007 yielded the counterintuitive result that diverse communities exhibited decreased civic engagement. People vote less, volunteer less, trust each other less in diverse communities compared to homogenous communities.

The rhetorical headline makes it clear that with diversity suitably chastened, Dreher is free (as if he wasn’t already!) to advocate for monoculture without being dragged down by liberal critiques of homogeneity (read: white, male, heterosexual). He can be perfectly happy in his very own little bubble – in his particular case a project he calls the Benedict Option where he can be insulated from anyone who doesn’t fit into his Orthodox Christian worldview.

But the results of Putnam’s research aren’t an end to the question of diversity; they describe, in fact, the very challenge diversity poses by its very nature and ubiquity. How, indeed, do we encourage the positive civic interactions capable of overcoming the dissociative factors at play in our multifaceted communities? How do we even sensibly define diversity in type (e.g. ideology, ethnicity, economics, etc.), scale (family, community, city, region, state, nation) let alone policy? The question is fundamentally personal; a matter of our approach to whether we approach diversity with curiosity, detachment or, in some vocal quarters, revulsion.

For an example, we could look to the controversy surrounding North Carolina’s law that bans ordinances denying discrimination against LGBTQ people and directly prohibits transgendered persons from using bathrooms according to their gender identity. The law is partly the product of dangerous misinformation and fearmongering about transgendered people (see Media Matters' debunking here). Broadly, however, it’s an expression of the religious right’s hostility towards LGBTQIA identities – e.g. sinful offenses to God, perversion of nature, heterosexual familial breakdowns. It can only be considered hostility when it isn’t enough to accept that legal doesn’t mean mandatory; to the religious right, what is deviant in their view must be forbidden to everyone.

It comes as a surprise that Zootopia, a Disney film, would offer a remarkably nuanced perspective on the challenges inherent in a diverse society, all the while delivering a crackerjack conspiracy thriller and buddy movie. The film’s creators previously offered us Frozen, a welcome call to girl power that nevertheless came across as glib and, worse, perpetuated Disney’s obsession with casting women as princesses. (What sort of subtextual goodness would have infused Frozen had its sisters been peasants?) That Zootopia dispenses with the fetish for aristocracy and instead gives us a proletarian view is a refreshing change on its own.

The film centers on Judy (voiced by Ginnifer Goodwin), a rabbit whose keen sense of justice leads her away from carrot farming into the unlikely profession of policing – unlikely, because in Zootopia’s world small mammals aren’t generally considered physically matched to the demands of police work. A lesser movie would have dwelled in Judy’s challenges at the police academy, cataloguing every act of bullying and condescension from teachers and fellow trainees. But the filmmakers breeze through Judy’s challenges in an exciting montage that culminates with her proud graduation as the first bunny cop before launching into the film’s narrative. Unsurprisingly, being a trained and top-of-the-class graduate earns her no respect in the precinct to which she is assigned. The police chief, an imposing bull voiced with wonderful grit by Idris Elba, even assigns her to parking duty on her first day. It says a lot about Judy’s character that she commits herself to excel at the less-than-ideal assignment. She does excel, but by the second day we can sympathize when the job leaves her demoralized. Who wants to punish people for parking infractions and get abused for it?

The situation changes when she unwittingly helps a sneaky fox, Nick (voiced by Justin Bateman), pull a con on an ice cream store owner. She gets the upper hand on him quickly enough, but the stage is set for an oil-and-water partnership when a missing person’s case connects to a series of frightening incidents where Zootopia’s carnivores revert to their primal states. At stake: the civilizing influence that redefines the predator-prey relationship as one of peaceful co-existence.

Zootopia is exceptionally well-conceived and executed with superb voice work and animation, as funny as it is heartfelt, and inspiring for featuring a female heroine defined by her blend of kindness, toughness, and smarts rather than the usual romantic tropes. Cinematically, it’s one of the finest animated films in recent years solely on the basis of his rich characters a sophisticated narrative.

Layered interpretations aren’t necessary, of course, but when it comes to reading the film from a political perspective it stands out above the usual genre feel-good messaging by refusing to reduce its characters to stereotypes or allowing itself to be glibly mapped onto the conservative/liberal dichotomy. A lesser film would have sorted characters into unabashed racists and their victims, and the big villain would have been some sort of Trumpian blowhard. But every principal character is a nuanced mix of nobility, prejudice, wisdom, ignorance and righteousness of varying degrees. The difference lies in how each chooses to confront the legacy of a savage past: can predators evolve beyond their killer instincts? Judy and Nick – the rabbit and the fox – form a credible and touching friendship from a partnership of convenience, and in their relationship we have a positive, but by no means bump-free, response to the challenges of diversity. (It’s interesting to note that what separates them, more so than their species, is their positions as cop and criminal.) In the film’s startling villain, we find a destructive response, not unlike the rabid right-wingers who denounce Muslims and Mexicans, that illustrates how even understandable fears can upend empathy and moral reasoning.

Ultimately, Zootopia illustrates the take-away from Putnam’s research: we live in a diverse world, and whether we live well or succumb to conflict depends on our willingness to embrace that diversity and make it work. As the RNC convention demonstrates, with supremacists like Rep. King proclaiming that capital-C Civilization owes its success to white people, America has not freed itself from its legacy of racism. This is the context for culture warriors like Dreher, who fail to understand both the distinction and overlap between overt discrimination among individuals and the institutional discrimination of white heterosexual male privilege. In the end, though, it comes down to will. As reactionary conservatives and Trump’s New Republican Party – an expression of fundamental right-wing angst – prove, some people just don’t want to get along. A film alone may not change minds, but films like Zootopia that can deliver terrifically entertaining stories with nuanced cultural commentary go a long way towards fostering a better culture.


bar 9 and the art of coffee - no tips needed (at TFPO)

Bar 9 is my favourite coffee spot - great coffee responsibly sourced and crafted with care, friendly service..I interviewed Bar 9's co-owner about his no-tipping model in the context of a debate within Culver City over the minimum wage...

At the beginning of the year, Zayde implemented a no-tipping model in which the full costs of labor, sales tax, etc., are included in the price. The move represents a commitment to hospitality by removing the ambiguities and obligations associated with tipping and focusing instead on the whole guest experience. It also presents opportunity for baristas to devote themselves to their craft in a career with long-term prospects, a contrast to the typical short-term, part-time positions available in the average coffee chain. This beautifully manifests business that treats business owners and employees as co-producers, each taking pride in their work and cooperating with a shared passion for coffee culture and satisfying customers.

I caught up with Zayde to discuss his business model, coffee, and other Bar 9 news.

Now that we’re well into 2016, how’s the new no-tipping model working for you and your associates?

Our new hospitality-included menu has been ... READ THE FULL INTERVIEW AT THE FRONT PAGE ONLINE


vote for a third party or don’t vote – or else

While discussing Sanders’ endorsement of Clinton with a friend the other day – a friend who thinks Clinton would be a “solid president” – I was surprised to be dismissed with a charge familiar to marginalized radicals: it’s all just talk unless you vote (and perhaps even work on behalf of your candidate of choice).

Before even considering the underlying vote fetish in our civic culture that sees the act of voting in-and-of-itself as legitimizing political opinion, the dismissal ignores the political reality American citizens aren’t the only ones with a vested interested in who occupies the Oval Office. Given the United States’ global influence, the entire world has a stake in American presidential politics; their interpretation of US policy is surely more than “just talk.” More directly, permanent residents (e.g. non-citizen green card holders) who pay taxes have as much of a directly vested interest in the country’s governance as citizens do. After all, their tax money goes towards funding the government just like an American citizen’s. So if you’re going to take my money in taxes, you’re going to take my opinion on how it’s being spent – and if you don’t like hearing my opinion you can give me my money back.

There’s more than taxation with and without representation to consider, however. The decision to vote or not vote relates to the decision to become a citizen or remain a permanent resident, which is a political decision in and of itself. Political chauvinists may denounce the non-voter, like the non-citizen, as politically irrelevant but that’s a self-serving way to avoid the uncomfortable truth that declining to vote, like declining to become a citizen, is a considered and purposeful response to political realities in the United States.

To unpack the voting issues, I’d direct you to CounterPunch, where Jason Goldfarb ably dismantles the arguments levied against non-voters.
The question asked is always “how do we bring the non-voters into our political process?” or “how can we engage voters?” but rarely “why are these voters not engaged” and never “is their disengagement correct? Should we join them in solidarity?”

Not only does the condescending attitude towards non-voters only further alienate them but such an attitude is also un-democratic. In the place of logical discussion are patronizing platitudes. The injunction Vote!” as an obvious, self-evident, truth masks the fact that there is no evidence to support such a claim. When every statistical indicator tells us that majorities are not happy with the state of democracy it is alarming that such a position is never taken seriously.
He then takes on several myths about not voting, many in the context of the 2016 presidential election. The piece is well worth reading on its own, along with others written from a specifically anarchist perspective over at infoshop.org, but the general point is that the decision not to vote is just as much a political decision as choosing to vote. While it can be an act of protest and an expression of political ideology, it can equally be a manifestation of indifference to a system undeserving of validation through participation.

For Bonus Points …

To provide context, however, it’s worth considering the fundamental quality of being a citizen as represented by voting. Underlying the injunction that voting isn’t just a right to be exercised or not at one’s discretion but a responsibility, nay, a sacred duty is the assumption that citizens have given their consent to the system. And by system, I refer to the entire apparatus of government-driven social organization – the nation-state. Lysander Spooner’s treatise No Treason comes to mind, calling into question the right of any nation to exist beyond the consent of the governed and pointing out how governments both democratic and despotic do not actually rest on consent but rather force.
Spooner is rather long-winded, so here’s a key idea in regards to the US Constitution:
The necessity for the consent of "the people" is implied in this declaration. The whole authority of the Constitution rests upon it. If they did not consent, it was of no validity. Of course it had no validity, except as between those who actually consented. No one's consent could be presumed against him, without his actual consent being given, any more than in the case of any other contract to pay money, or render service … The most that can be inferred from the form, "We, the people," is, that the instrument offered membership to all "the people of the United States;" leaving it for them to accept or refuse it, at their pleasure.
Furthermore, those who originally agreed to the Constitution, could thereby bind nobody that should come after them. They could contract for nobody but themselves. They had no more natural right or power to make political contracts, binding upon succeeding generations, than they had to make marriage or business contracts binding upon them. [Emphasis added.]
And therein lies the point: if people haven’t consented to the electoral system in the first place, then by what justification can refusing to participate in it (for whatever reason), while nevertheless discussing and critiquing it, be considered politically illegitimate? Therein lies the rub for the system’s defenders, and why it is important for political skeptics to be steadfast in their critiques even when pressured to conform.

So vote, if you like, and vote for whoever you want for whatever reason. If Hillary Clinton is your candidate, vote for her. If you remain suspicious of establishment politics in general and Clinton in particular, for your own sake check out an alternative like the Green Party (or the libertarian party, if you skew conservative). But don’t buy into the psychological manipulation telling you that refusing to vote isn’t a valid political action. After all, when we don’t like a company’s product, we don’t buy it. And if we seriously object to a company’s business practices, we agitate for a boycott. So how shall we respond to a political system that is so clearly broken?


farewell to the revolution - part 2

For part 1, click here.

For a few months, as the Sanders campaigned defied fundraising expectations and built an enthusiastic grassroots movement, it seemed as if something genuinely remarkable was happening in contemporary American politics. We were seeing a significant challenge to the corporate establishment in a process rigged against Sanders from the beginning (e.g. superdelegates pledging themselves to Clinton before the primaries). Despite massive opposition, Sanders managed not only to win in primary contests but also draw a very sharp distinction between himself and Clinton. Where Sanders had the ambition to reach for universal single-payer healthcare, Clinton was reduced to an uninspired advocacy for incrementalism under the banner of pragmatism. Even her support for a higher minimum wage was extracted, in real-time during a live debate, by a persistent Sanders.

As 2016 got underway, it seemed that despite Clinton’s triangulated step leftward, there was simply no way to reconcile her Wall Street candidacy with Sanders’ grassroots revolution. How could a Sanders supporter conceivably support Hillary when she clearly did no embrace the values or policies of the Sanders campaign, except in a half-hearted way obtained under duress? The fact that Hillary Clinton, and the Democratic Party, only espouse meaningful progressive values and policies when pushed hard says a lot about their natural instincts. Surely voters should not have to subject the people who courted their votes to tourniquet and thumbscrews, yet that is exactly what happens when voters are manipulated into supporting a candidate who doesn’t actually represent their interests. Add in Clinton’s record from First Lady to Secretary of State (see Don't Call Him Bernie Anymore at CounterPunch), her work with the dubious Clinton Foundation, her financial ties to Wall Street, the “extreme carelessness” she displayed in regards to her eMails, and the grotesque abuse of feminism wielded by surrogates like Gloria Steinem and Madeline Albright, and the preponderance of evidence demolishes her progressive credentials. She is neoliberalism’s champion. (If you want more on this, see Ted Rall at rall.com and the folks at CounterPunch.org).

Then came the end game, demarcated by California’s compromised primaries (see California Calls Fraud at the Observer) . The biggest outrage came when the media abandoned journalistic ethics and professionalism by declaring Clinton the Democratic nominee before Californians even voted. But Elizabeth Warren’s endorsement of Clinton, after months sitting on the sidelines, was a special kind of kick in the teeth. Having built her political career on economic justice – by holding Wall Street accountable, for instance, and opposing the TPP – it was shocking to have her support a candidate so tightly embedded with the country’s economic elites. Then came talk of the Vice Presidency. Along with the fact that Warren withheld her endorsement until the primaries were effectively over, when her political support wouldn’t mean very much, her willingness to be considered as Clinton’s VP stained her endorsement as opportunism as well as political cowardice. Bravery would have been endorsing the candidate in line with her agitation for economic reform, Sanders, during the primaries when it could have made a difference.

So now here we are, with Sanders having satisfied the Democratic Party’s wish for unity and endorsed Clinton. His supporters are now expected to vote for her in a bid to stop the latest GOP bogeyman. The question, then, is whether he did succeed in creating a movement beyond himself that will endure to apply the tourniquets and thumbscrews the Democratic Party after the election. It might, but all that Sanders’ political revolution has to show is a symbolic party platform that contains some admittedly good ideas. Without opposition to the TPP and fracking and support of universal single-payer healthcare, however, the DNC’s symbolic party platform document is another example of throwing a few crumbs to the birds so they don’t notice the cage being built around them. And again: it’s a non-binding document. So what is it about changing the language on a rhetorical document that constitutes a victory for Sanders’ political revolution?

If I were really cynical, I’d think the Clintons put up Trump to run on the GOP ticket in the effort of providing a monster so scary that voters would line up behind the generally disliked Hillary Clinton. There’s no need to take out the tin foil, however, because the reality is bad enough: Sanders did as he said he would, suggesting that in the end he wasn’t himself transformed by calls for political revolution. Whatever his intentions, the end result is precisely the Clinton-friendly, revolution-neutering scenario imagined when he first announced his pursuit of the presidential nomination.


farewell to the revolution - part 1

When Bernie Sanders announced his campaign to run against Hillary Clinton for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination, a cynical scenario came to mind: Sanders would talk a grand progressive game, sweep up all the people frustrated by President Obama’s neoliberal administration, and deliver his supporters to a candidate whose progressiveness in everything but social issues can be charitably described as Republican-lite. It would be a neat shell game of establishment politics driven once again by fear of the Republican presidential candidate.

The surprise was that Sanders ran a campaign that seemed authentically revolutionary in the limited scope allowed by the American political system. Although not a socialist in the technical sense of the word, his New Deal liberalism was a fresh drink of water in a political system parched of everything but corporate and military-industrial interests.

Naturally, the system conspired against him. The media and political elites (e.g. the DNC), championing a de facto Clinton nomination, consistently (and with great condescension) echoed the narrative of Sanders as political outlier and usurper. Throughout all this, Trump was made to play the role of Democrat’s bogeyman better than the media could have hoped, although Ted Cruz would have been equally noxious. Naturally, it became even easier for establishment politicians and their media cheerleaders to rally around Clinton. With the dismissive and reluctant coverage provided to Sanders – in contrast to the obsessive reality-TV coverage of Trump and the sycophantic support for Clinton – it’s no surprise that Sanders ultimately didn’t win the nomination.

Regardless of Sanders’ policy difference with Clinton and Republicans, there were reasons at the outset not to feel the Bern too deeply. There was, of course, the matter of his so-called socialism, which remains a provocative label misapplied to old-school liberalism more than an expression of radical anti-capitalist politics. For committed socialists, the mislabeling was rather jarring. There was also the fact that his record didn’t neatly fit in with the values and policies espoused by deep progressives. Apart from his willingness to criticize Israel and put in a good word for Palestinian dignity, Sanders’ voting record on foreign policy issues is a bit dodgier than his reductive assertion that, unlike Clinton, he voted against the Iraq War. The same could be said of his voting on domestic issues, although in this respect he is better than most politicians. See Ron Jacobs’ The Problem with Bernie at CounterPunch.) But the most obvious omen of Sanders eventual capitulation were his own words. Most notably, Sanders was adamant about third-party candidacies as spoilers, making it clear when asked about running as an independent candidate that “I made the promise that I would not, and I will keep that promise.” (See “No, Bernie Sanders still isn’t going to run as an independent” at the Washington Post )

It was there all along – but it’s easy to see why Sanders’ supporters glossed over it as the primaries picked up momentum.

(to be continued)


Ginna Carter Prevails in PRT’s Eccentricities of a Nightingale (at TFPO)

Review of the Pacific Resident Theatre's production of Tennessee Williams' The Eccentricities of a Nightingale

Misfit, freak, geek – whatever the description, it’s easy to see why Alma Winemiller, the delightfully odd and sassy bird who gives The Eccentricities of a Nightingale its title, was so loved by Tennessee Williams. Her indomitable spirit stands bravely against the condescending and conformist influences of a disapproving community. Today, we wouldn’t overthink the bundle of exaggerated mannerisms that is Alma, nor view her penchant for sitting in the park to feed and chat with the birds as a preliminary sign of lunacy. In turn-of-the-20th-century Glorious Hill, Mississippi, just as in many communities, the pressure to fit in creates ... READ THE REVIEW AT THE FRONT PAGE ONLINE